A review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

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Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” has finally been published. The book is based on Hurston’s 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Barracoon went previously unpublished due in part to Hurston’s refusal to revise the prose into a “standard” English. Hurston wrote Barracoon in a phonetic approximation of Cudjo’s voice. While this vernacular style may pose (initial) challenges for many readers, it is the very soul of the book in that it transmits Cudjo’s story in his own voice, tone, and rhythm. Hurston used vernacular diction throughout her work, but Cudjo’s voice is singular; it bears a distinctly different sound than the characters of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel. It is hard to conceive a more compelling version of Barracoon than this one, the one Hurston refused to compromise, with its intense, vital orality.

What is Barracoon about? I shall liberally borrow my summary from the book’s introduction, penned by Hurston scholar and biographer Deborah G. Plant:

On December 14, 1927, Zora Neale Hurston took the 3:40 p.m. train from Penn Station, New York, to Mobile, to conduct a series of interviews with the last known surviving African of the last American slaver—the Clotilda. His name was Kossola, but he was called Cudjo Lewis. He was held as a slave for five and a half years in Plateau-Magazine Point, Alabama, from 1860 until Union soldiers told him he was free. Kossola lived out the rest of his life in Africatown (Plateau). Hurston’s trip south was a continuation of the field trip expedition she had initiated the previous year.

Oluale Kossola had survived capture at the hands of Dahomian warriors, the barracoons at Whydah (Ouidah), and the Middle Passage. He had been enslaved, he had lived through the Civil War and the largely un-Reconstructed South, and he had endured the rule of Jim Crow. He had experienced the dawn of a new millennium that included World War I and the Great Depression. Within the magnitude of world events swirled the momentous events of Kossola’s own personal world.

Zora Neale Hurston, as a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and folklorist, was eager to inquire into his experiences. “I want to know who you are,” she approached Kossola, “and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?” Kossola absorbed her every question, then raised a tearful countenance. “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’”

Those final sentences should give you a quick taste of Barracoon’s central rhetorical conceit. After her own introductory chapter (which details the historical circumstances of the Clotilda’s illegal journey to West Africa), Hurston lets Cudjo inspirit the text, telling his own story in his own voice. Hurston, who spent three months with Cudjo, initially interposes herself in the story, as we see early in the book’s first chapter:

“My grandpa, he a great man. I tellee you how he go.”

I was afraid that Cudjo might go off on a tangent, so I cut in with, “But Kossula, I want to hear about you and how you lived in Africa.”

He gave me a look full of scornful pity and asked, “Where is de house where de mouse is de leader? In de Affica soil I cain tellee you ’bout de son before I tellee you ’bout de father; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father (et te) till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, (et, te, te, grandfather) now, dass right ain’ it?

This brief “cutting in” is one of the last moments in the narrative that Hurston attempts to steer Cudjo in a particular direction. Instead, she befriends the old man, bringing him watermelons, hams, peaches, and other treats. These little gifts serve to frame Cudjo’s narrative as he moves from one episode to the next. Otherwise, Hurston disappears into the background, an ear for Cudjo’s voice, a witness for his story.

Cudjo’s story is astounding. He describes life in his own West African village and the terrible slaughter of his people at the hands of “de people of Dahomey,” a tribe that eventually sells Cudjo and the other young people of his village to white men. Cudjo describes his early enslavement in Alabama, which took place in secret until the Civil War, and his eventual freedom from bondage. He tells Hurston about the founding of Africatown, a community of West Africans. He describes his life after capture and slavery—his marriage, his children, his near-fatal railroad accident. Cudjo’s life and his children’s lives were incredibly difficult. They were always othered:

“All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey.

“Derefo’, you unnerstand me, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time. Me and dey mama doan lak to hear our chillun call savage. It hurtee dey feelings. Derefo’ dey fight. Dey fight hard. When dey whip de other boys, dey folks come to our house and tellee us, ‘Yo’ boys mighty bad, Cudjo. We ’fraid they goin’ kill somebody.”

Somehow most devastating in a narrative full of devastation are the deaths of Cudjo’s children. After his daughter dies in infancy, his namesake is killed by a sheriff, a scene that resonates with terrible pain in 2018:

Nine year we hurtee inside ’bout our baby. Den we git hurtee again. Somebody call hisself a deputy sheriff kill de baby boy now.

He say he de law, but he doan come ’rest him. If my boy done something wrong, it his place come ’rest him lak a man. If he mad wid my Cudjo ’bout something den he oughter come fight him face to face lak a man. He doan come ’rest him lak no sheriff and he doan come fight him lak no man.

Another of his sons is decapitated in a railroad accident. A third son, angry with the injustice of the world, simply disappears: “My boy gone. He ain’ in de house and he ain’ on de hill wid his mama. We both missee him. I doan know. Maybe dey kill my boy. It a hidden mystery.”

Cudjo, ever the survivor, went on to outlive his wife and all of his children.  In her foreword to Barracoon, Alice Walker captures the pain and pathos of this remarkable position:

And then, the story of Cudjo Lewis’s life after Emancipation. His happiness with “freedom,” helping to create a community, a church, building his own house. His tender love for his wife, Seely, and their children. The horrible deaths that follow. We see a man so lonely for Africa, so lonely for his family, we are struck with the realization that he is naming something we ourselves work hard to avoid: how lonely we are too in this still foreign land: lonely for our true culture, our people, our singular connection to a specific understanding of the Universe. And that what we long for, as in Cudjo Lewis’s case, is gone forever. But we see something else: the nobility of a soul that has suffered to the point almost of erasure, and still it struggles to be whole, present, giving.

I cannot improve on Walker’s phrase here. Hurston brings that “nobility of soul” to life via Cudjo’s own rich language.

While Barracoon is of a piece with Hurston’s anthropological collections Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, it does not read like an autoethnography. It is rather a compelling first-person narrative. Hurston collecteed stories from Cudjo–fables, parables, games—but these are included as an appendix, a wise narrative choice as any attempt to integrate them into the main narrative would hardly be seamless. The appendix adds to the text’s richness without imposing on it, and links it to Hurston’s work as a folklorist.

I’ve noted some of the additional material already—Walker’s foreword, the appendix of folklore, as well as Plant’s introduction. Included also is an afterword by Plant that contextualizes Barracoon within Hurston’s academic career, a list of the original residents of Africatown, a glossary, a bibliography, and a lengthy compendium of endnotes. This editorial material frames the historic and academic importance of Barracoon, and will be of great interest to anyone who wishes to study the subject more. However, Cudjo’s narrative stands on its own as a sad, compelling, essential story. It’s amazing it took this long to reach a wider audience. Recommended.

[Ed. note–this review originally ran in May, 2018.]

A review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

151835599518773205

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” has finally been published. The book is based on Hurston’s 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. Barracoon went previously unpublished due in part to Hurston’s refusal to revise the prose into a “standard” English. Hurston wrote Barracoon in a phonetic approximation of Cudjo’s voice. While this vernacular style may pose (initial) challenges for many readers, it is the very soul of the book in that it transmits Cudjo’s story in his own voice, tone, and rhythm. Hurston used vernacular diction throughout her work, but Cudjo’s voice is singular; it bears a distinctly different sound than the characters of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel. It is hard to conceive a more compelling version of Barracoon than this one, the one Hurston refused to compromise, with its intense, vital orality.

What is Barracoon about? I shall liberally borrow my summary from the book’s introduction, penned by Hurston scholar and biographer Deborah G. Plant:

On December 14, 1927, Zora Neale Hurston took the 3:40 p.m. train from Penn Station, New York, to Mobile, to conduct a series of interviews with the last known surviving African of the last American slaver—the Clotilda. His name was Kossola, but he was called Cudjo Lewis. He was held as a slave for five and a half years in Plateau-Magazine Point, Alabama, from 1860 until Union soldiers told him he was free. Kossola lived out the rest of his life in Africatown (Plateau). Hurston’s trip south was a continuation of the field trip expedition she had initiated the previous year.

Oluale Kossola had survived capture at the hands of Dahomian warriors, the barracoons at Whydah (Ouidah), and the Middle Passage. He had been enslaved, he had lived through the Civil War and the largely un-Reconstructed South, and he had endured the rule of Jim Crow. He had experienced the dawn of a new millennium that included World War I and the Great Depression. Within the magnitude of world events swirled the momentous events of Kossola’s own personal world.

Zora Neale Hurston, as a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and folklorist, was eager to inquire into his experiences. “I want to know who you are,” she approached Kossola, “and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?” Kossola absorbed her every question, then raised a tearful countenance. “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’”

Those final sentences should give you a quick taste of Barracoon’s central rhetorical conceit. After her own introductory chapter (which details the historical circumstances of the Clotilda’s illegal journey to West Africa), Hurston lets Cudjo inspirit the text, telling his own story in his own voice. Hurston, who spent three months with Cudjo, initially interposes herself in the story, as we see early in the book’s first chapter:

“My grandpa, he a great man. I tellee you how he go.”

I was afraid that Cudjo might go off on a tangent, so I cut in with, “But Kossula, I want to hear about you and how you lived in Africa.”

He gave me a look full of scornful pity and asked, “Where is de house where de mouse is de leader? In de Affica soil I cain tellee you ’bout de son before I tellee you ’bout de father; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father (et te) till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, (et, te, te, grandfather) now, dass right ain’ it?

This brief “cutting in” is one of the last moments in the narrative that Hurston attempts to steer Cudjo in a particular direction. Instead, she befriends the old man, bringing him watermelons, hams, peaches, and other treats. These little gifts serve to frame Cudjo’s narrative as he moves from one episode to the next. Otherwise, Hurston disappears into the background, an ear for Cudjo’s voice, a witness for his story.

Cudjo’s story is astounding. He describes life in his own West African village and the terrible slaughter of his people at the hands of “de people of Dahomey,” a tribe that eventually sells Cudjo and the other young people of his village to white men. Cudjo describes his early enslavement in Alabama, which took place in secret until the Civil War, and his eventual freedom from bondage. He tells Hurston about the founding of Africatown, a community of West Africans. He describes his life after capture and slavery—his marriage, his children, his near-fatal railroad accident. Cudjo’s life and his children’s lives were incredibly difficult. They were always othered:

“All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey.

“Derefo’, you unnerstand me, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time. Me and dey mama doan lak to hear our chillun call savage. It hurtee dey feelings. Derefo’ dey fight. Dey fight hard. When dey whip de other boys, dey folks come to our house and tellee us, ‘Yo’ boys mighty bad, Cudjo. We ’fraid they goin’ kill somebody.”

Somehow most devastating in a narrative full of devastation are the deaths of Cudjo’s children. After his daughter dies in infancy, his namesake is killed by a sheriff, a scene that resonates with terrible pain in 2018:

Nine year we hurtee inside ’bout our baby. Den we git hurtee again. Somebody call hisself a deputy sheriff kill de baby boy now.

He say he de law, but he doan come ’rest him. If my boy done something wrong, it his place come ’rest him lak a man. If he mad wid my Cudjo ’bout something den he oughter come fight him face to face lak a man. He doan come ’rest him lak no sheriff and he doan come fight him lak no man.

Another of his sons is decapitated in a railroad accident. A third son, angry with the injustice of the world, simply disappears: “My boy gone. He ain’ in de house and he ain’ on de hill wid his mama. We both missee him. I doan know. Maybe dey kill my boy. It a hidden mystery.”

Cudjo, ever the survivor, went on to outlive his wife and all of his children.  In her foreword to Barracoon, Alice Walker captures the pain and pathos of this remarkable position:

And then, the story of Cudjo Lewis’s life after Emancipation. His happiness with “freedom,” helping to create a community, a church, building his own house. His tender love for his wife, Seely, and their children. The horrible deaths that follow. We see a man so lonely for Africa, so lonely for his family, we are struck with the realization that he is naming something we ourselves work hard to avoid: how lonely we are too in this still foreign land: lonely for our true culture, our people, our singular connection to a specific understanding of the Universe. And that what we long for, as in Cudjo Lewis’s case, is gone forever. But we see something else: the nobility of a soul that has suffered to the point almost of erasure, and still it struggles to be whole, present, giving.

I cannot improve on Walker’s phrase here. Hurston brings that “nobility of soul” to life via Cudjo’s own rich language.

While Barracoon is of a piece with Hurston’s anthropological collections Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, it does not read like an autoethnography. It is rather a compelling first-person narrative. Hurston collecteed stories from Cudjo–fables, parables, games—but these are included as an appendix, a wise narrative choice as any attempt to integrate them into the main narrative would hardly be seamless. The appendix adds to the text’s richness without imposing on it, and links it to Hurston’s work as a folklorist.

I’ve noted some of the additional material already—Walker’s foreword, the appendix of folklore, as well as Plant’s introduction. Included also is an afterword by Plant that contextualizes Barracoon within Hurston’s academic career, a list of the original residents of Africatown, a glossary, a bibliography, and a lengthy compendium of endnotes. This editorial material frames the historic and academic importance of Barracoon, and will be of great interest to anyone who wishes to study the subject more. However, Cudjo’s narrative stands on its own as a sad, compelling, essential story. It’s amazing it took this long to reach a wider audience. Recommended.

 

The Resurrectionist (Book Acquired, 6.04.2013)

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Matthew Guinn’s The Resurrectionist showed up in the mail a few days ago. Haven’t really had time to get into it, but the premise seems promising, and Guinn’s Southern lit bona fides also intrigue me.

Publisher W.W. Norton’s blurb:

A young doctor wrestles with the legacy of a slave “resurrectionist” owned by his South Carolina medical school.

“Dog days and the fresh bodies are arriving once again.” So begins the fall term at South Carolina Medical College, where Dr. Jacob Thacker is on probation for Xanax abuse. His interim career—working public relations for the dean—takes an unnerving detour into the past when the bones of African American slaves, over a century old, are unearthed on campus. Out of the college’s dark past, these bones threaten to rise and condemn the present.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, one of the school’s founders, had purchased a slave for his unusual knife skills. This slave, Nemo (“no man”) would become an unacknowledged member of the surgical faculty by day—and by night, a “resurrectionist,” responsible for procuring bodies for medical study. An unforgettable character, by turns apparently insouciant, tormented, and brilliant, and seen by some as almost supernatural, Nemo will seize his self-respect in ways no reader can anticipate.

With exceptional storytelling pacing and skill, Matthew Guinn weaves together past and present to relate a Southern Gothic tale of shocking crimes and exquisite revenge, a riveting and satisfying moral parable of the South.

 

Bourbon Island 1730 — Olivier Appollodorus and Lewis Trondheim

Bourbon Island 1730, part funny animal graphic novel, part historical literature, recounts the story of Raphael Pommeroy who travels from France to Bourbon Island with his ornithology professor in search of a living dodo. On the journey to the French colony, Raphael becomes entranced by pirate tales, and when he arrives to Bourbon Island, he immediately tries to join up with some ex-pirates–unsuccessfully, of course. The French government has offered an amnesty to all pirates, and many have become successful plantation owners. However, their new wealth comes at the expense of the large population of slaves brought to Bourbon Island from Madagascar and Mozambique. The most interesting subplot of Bourbon Island 1730 involves a network of maroons, runaway slaves who have colonized their own villages at the top of the island’s treacherous terrain. When the notorious pirate Captain Buzzard is captured, some of the maroons plan to set him free and lead a revolt against the French colonials. In the meantime, the colonial authorities, including the scheming governor and the greedy priest, are trying to get Buzzard to reveal where he’s hidden a large cache of treasure.

Lewis Trondheim’s art strikes a nice balance between vivid detail and the classic funny animal style, and the book’s measured pacing delivers the story at a nice clip. Appollodorus and Trondheim never rush, taking the time to convey the cultural complexity of Bourbon Island–quite a feat, really, when you consider how much is going on here: the end of a pirate age, the horrors of slavery, and the problematics of colonization. Appollodorus and Trondheim envision Bourbon Island as a strange nexus of slavery and freedom, piracy and central authority, of the meeting of the cultures of Africa, India, and Europe. Leading man Raphael is a hopeless romantic who pines wistfully for the absolute freedom he sees as the life of a pirate and the natural right of all men. And yet, as the book makes clear, idealism can rarely stand up to the corrosive complexity of the real world.

Allain Mallet's 1719 Map of Bourbon Island
Allain Mallet's 1719 Map of Bourbon Island

With twelve pages of endnotes, Bourbon Island 1730 is just the kind of well-researched historical fiction that would fit neatly into any post-colonial studies course. There’s only one major fault with the book: it ends too quickly. Appollodorus and Trondheim have too many fascinating subplots that they don’t bother to resolve. While we have no problem with ambiguous conclusions, Bourbon feels simply rushed at the end, as it sprints to a virtual non-conclusion. We would’ve been much happier with a cliff-hanger and a promise of a part two. Nonetheless, anyone interested in colonialism and post-colonial studies should check out this book.

Bourbon Island 1730 is available October 28th, 2008 from First Second.

Summer Reading List: Tales of Adventure

Indulge yourself this summer by taking a fantastic voyage–literary or literally. To help you get started, check out the following tales of adventure.

William Vollman’s The Rifles, part of his as-yet-unfinished Seven Dreams series is a brilliant engagement of history, colonialism, identity, and all of those Big Profound Issues that we so adore in our modern literature. It’s also a really cool adventure story, the tale of John Franklin’s nineteenth-century exploration of Inuit territory. Sad, beautiful, breathtaking.

If you prefer your adventure tales uncomplicated by postmodern gambits, check out John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a journalistic account of the writer’s 1996 ascent of Mt. Everest, and the disasters that befell his expedition. The word “harrowing” fits well, gentle readers.

On the lighter-but-not-too-much-lighter side, Jeff Smith’s self-published comic Bone is fantastic; even better, you can get the entire 1300 page run of the whole series in Bone: One Volume Edition. We use the word “delightful” here in an absolutely unpejorative sense, friends: the adventures of Fone Bone, his cousins Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, and Thorn, Granma Rose, and the Red Dragon are epic in scope yet retain an honest humor that will keep in the most cynical folks laughing. A major literary accomplishment that has been unjustly overlooked.

Also somewhat overlooked is Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. In Bone, protagonist Fone Bone lugs around a massive copy of Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick everywhere he goes–and while that book is undoubtedly a desert island classic, Benito Cereno is an underappreciated gem of a tale. Revealing the strange secret at the heart of this book would spoil it, so suffice to say that the short novel enigmatically investigates slavery and colonialism in ways that beg for closer analysis. Good stuff.

Perhaps, though, you beg for the real thing. In that case, we recommend Ultimate Adventures (from Rough Guides) for all your camel-trekking-in-the-Sahara, rock-climbing-at-Joshua-tree, Pacuare-River-rafting needs. Beautiful photography and tantalizing descriptions are coupled with informative “Need to Know” sections that spell out the who-what-when-where-and-how that will help you get your adventure under way.

Also in the exploratory vein, Where to Go When: The Americas, from DK’s Eyewitness Travel, serves as a kind of travel almanac–the kind that makes you wish you were very, very rich with an excess of free time. If that were the case, you’d be spending nine days in May on the Amazon River, spotting pink river dolphins, gorgeous macaws, and darling squirrel monkeys instead of reading this blog right now. Even if you’re not excessively rich with nothing more pressing to do other than trek the Alaskan fjords, The Americas is fun daydreaming material–perhaps the realist response to Vollman’s Seven Dreams. In any case, Ultimate Adventures and The Americas both come out at the end of this summer, giving you plenty of time to plan that awesome adventure getaway for next year.

Cannibalism and the Economy of Sacrifice in Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative

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I’ve been re-reading Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, a fascinating autobiography/travel book detailing Equiano’s experiences being kidnapped from West Africa at a young age and sold into slavery. During this time, Equiano migrates all around the world, earns and loses and earns again his freedom, and eventually comes to identify himself as an Englishman, replete with English values. Today, the book is widely regarded as a key abolitionist text; it remains a fascinating document of the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. It’s also a pretty interesting adventure story.

The early part of the book is chock full of images of consumption and sacrifice. Prominent among these images, the threat of cannibalism looms as the ultimate horror at stake in an alien encounter between two different cultures. The first image of cannibalism, however, becomes a sort of baseline of the rhetoric of cannibalism. Equiano relates the following Ibo proverb concerning villagers with bitter tempers: “if they were to be eaten, they were to be eaten with bitter herbs,” noting that many Ibo “offerings [sacrifices] are eaten with bitter herbs.” This seemingly light-hearted proverb locates the consumption of the human body as a site of holy sacrifice, acknowledging that the cost of existence always figures as a displacement of one person’s access to resources in favor of another’s. Equiano later expresses a wish to sacrifice himself to gain his sister’s freedom—“happy should I have ever esteemed myself to encounter every misery for you, and to procure your freedom by the sacrifice of my own,” here echoing the Ibo proverb’s realization of a sacrificial economy. This sacrificial economy plummets into the taboo horror of cannibalism, as a terrified Equiano, kidnapped and dragged to the West African coast, first encounters Europeans. He asks his fellow Africans “if [he] were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair.” The terror of this alien-encounter is not abated when the Africans assure Equiano that he is not to be eaten; “I expected they would sacrifice me,” he writes.

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As the horror of his sea voyage increases, so does his belief that he is to be voraciously consumed by his captors. While “all pent up together like so many sheep in a fold,” Equiano avers that “We thought […] we should be eaten by these ugly men.” Equiano here figures as a sacrificial lamb, consumed by brutal barbarians. The slave-traders tap into and exploit this fear, using it to manipulate the behavior of Equiano: “the captain and people told me in jest they would kill and eat me, but I thought them in earnest.” Equiano puts his horror even more bluntly: “I very much feared they would kill and eat me.” Equiano’s horror at the threat of cannibalism contrasts greatly with the captain’s playful attitude about the eating of human flesh. The captain “jocularly” threatens to “kill” and “eat” Equiano, and also threatens to eat his young friend as well. The captain then inquires about the cannibalistic practices of West Africans, jokingly averring that “black people were not good to eat,” thus implying he had tasted their flesh before. The captain’s rhetorical technique further destabilizes Equiano’s sense of safety as well as confounding any attempt to systematize knowledge of the ethics, morality, and diet of his new captors; in short, the captain further alienates Equiano’s experience. However, a future Equiano, reflective and knowledgeable, assesses these structures of consumption and sacrifice in terms of economy. “Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice?” Equiano demands of the “nominal Christians” who participate in the slave trade. Equiano thus translates the literal consumption of enslaved labor into the spiritual, emotional consumption that occurs when people cannibalize each other. The captain’s humor—and indeed, the slight and humorous tone of the Ibo proverb—both serve as defense mechanisms to psychologically mask the taboo terror of cannibalism that figuratively underscores the enslavement of human beings.